Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Comfort Binging

Apparently we've been binging on comfort according to Sustainable Energy Ireland. Their latest report - Energy in the Residential Sector - sets out a detailed analysis of people's use of energy in the home over the past 15 years or so and how it has risen. Naturally this has upset a lot of folk, who have accused the rest of us of being addicted to comfort - honestly. Paul Cullen in today's Irish Times says we are 'addicted to warmth'. It seems we have become a nation of wimps: too fond of our central heating and electric lighting for our own good. What will they accuse us of next: an addiction to running water and indoor toilets?

The primary drivers of our increased energy consumption have been population growth and income growth. We have chosen to spend a lot of our extra spending power on gadgets and the energy to power them. There is nothing wrong with that. The challenge is to maintain and improve our standard of living whilst making sustainable choices about how we achieve this. Table 18 of the SEI report shows electricity's share in meeting residential energy needs rising from just 22% in 2005 to 52% in 2020. The problem is that I don't know where the electricity is going to come from. As I've noted before, we are taking some huge risks with our future energy security by over-investing in an unproven level of renewables-based power generation, and on a UK inter-connection.

It isn't just about power generation of course. We have just been through a massive mis-investment in new houses and apartments built to dismally low standards for insulation and energy performance. Over the next few years, new houses will be built to better standards - but the damage is done in the short term. So we will go through a period of expensive 'retro-fitting' of better insulation etc to the existing housing stock. Government incentives to do just this will play a useful part. Warmer weather due to climate change will also help of course - no need to run the central heating as often, as long or as high. Though I don't expect that one to feature in any adverts about Change ;-)

In the end, economics will lead to changes in our behaviour - just as the benefits of economic growth drove our increased consumption. Much that is desired in terms of changes in response to climate change, such as to commuting habits etc are now happening as a result of rising fuel costs. But behavioural economics will also help: such as using signals to our neighbours about our energy consumption that make us more aware. Not so much smart meters as 'status meters'.

As ever, it will be the cumulative impact of private, voluntary decisions that will create the conditions for a better place to live for this generation and the next.

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